The other side of the pilgrims at the Camino de Santiago

by Lorraine Williamson
Santiago pilgrims

SANTIAGO DE COMPOSTELA – In recent weeks, the compact historic city centre of Santiago de Compostela has been overrun with pilgrims more than ever. Residents of the city are experiencing more and more nuisance and are starting to get tired of it. 

Last Wednesday, the Pegregrinanción Europea Juvenil 2022 kicked off. According to the church, this attracted at least 12,000 young pilgrims to the capital of the northwestern Spanish province of A Coruña. A spokesperson for the organisation urged participants from a podium to follow directions and to stay on the marked routes. This was specifically in order to coexist with residents and other tourists visiting Santiago. 

See also: This is how Spain deals with uneducated and drunk tourists 

More people on a personal pilgrimage

However, residents in particular are fed up. They are experiencing more and more nuisance from the ever-increasing popularity of the famous pilgrimage route. It was already very popular and attracted pilgrims from all over the world. But it seems that the period of travel restrictions during the corona pandemic has led to even more people making the decision to go on their personal pilgrimage. 

The controversy over mass tourism in Santiago Compostela, as with other cities that attract large flows of visitors like magnets, is now expressed in a controversy between the president of the Xunta of Galicia and the opposition parties. That controversy has been around for some time. However, it has always been kept quiet due to its economic importance to the region since the pilgrim route was revived in 1993 by the then regional government by promoting it widely. 

Symbolic record broken

According to the Archdiocese of Santiago, 2,091 people collected the Compostela on Monday morning. This is the certificate which confirms they have completed the Camino according to the minimum requirements. The day before, there were more than 2,700. A symbolic record was broken on July 24, as 200,000 pilgrims reached Santiago for the first time in history for the Santiago annual celebrations. In 2019, that was only in August. The Holy Year that was actually in 2021 was postponed to 2022 due to the pandemic. 

In July, 67,203 people were able to collect the Compostela, 26% more than in 2019. The phenomenon of the Holy Year attracts a larger number of Spanish pilgrims, especially in summer. Foreigners are by far the majority in other months and more spread out over the year as a whole. 

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See also: Pilgrim held up on the Camino de Santiago with 11 animals 

All these statistics are relative because many people do the Camino without having their ID stamped. However, the influx this summer seems unprecedented and therefore provokes more criticism from all sides. Even in cities that depend so much on the route passing through their city, such as Sarria in Lugo. This is the main starting point for many walkers and in their race to get a bed in the hostels along the route, they often also walk partly at night, waking residents up. 

Good Practice Guide 

Three social organisations in Santiago have prepared a manual of good practice this year. In the text, readers are reminded that people live along the route. Walkers and cyclists are requested not to disrupt the daily lives of those residents. 

Last week, however, images of large crowds of young people from the Catholic youth pilgrimage went viral. They completely took over the streets in the historic centre, and ran screaming and singing through the streets. They organised meals in the street and, together with other excesses, caused unrest in the neighbourhoods. 

The tourism model in Santiago is ‘invasive, unsustainable and predatory’ 

While the municipality says it is preparing a sustainable tourism pact, the municipal groups of BNG and Compostela Alberta say they see the prevailing tourism model in Santiago as “invasive”, “unsustainable” and “predatory”, as they believe this summer shows. 

The president of the Xunta, Alfonso Rueda, sees these criticisms as ideological and insinuates that they are directed against the Catholic pilgrimage. While he admits that there is an occasional problem of too many people in one place, he emphasizes the benefits of the success of the Xacobeo. 

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